My favourite novels are the ones that stay with me long after I finish reading them. Sometimes it’s the characters that linger, sometimes it’s the writing itself, and often it’s because the subject matter makes me want to learn more. A novel that prompts me to delve deeper into a particular subject and its meaning, its symbolism, or its culture is, to me, the perfect sort of novel.
An Yu’s deliciously strange and beautiful Ghost Music is that sort of novel. The surprising combination of mushrooms and classical piano music are at the heart of the story and after reading it—devouring it, actually—I spent hours down a rabbit hole learning about Yunnan mushrooms; learning and relearning their names, their relevance, their importance to the province and to the people who farm and/or collect them. It is fascinating stuff, truly.
In the opening pages of Ghost Music, we are introduced to Song Yan, although we don’t yet know her name. She wakes in the night and finds herself in a strange room, startled by an orange mushroom growing out of the floorboards. It tells her it would like to be remembered. ”’It is normal that you don’t understand,’ the mushroom said…”
“But when you leave this room, it said, I’d like you to remember me.”
From the realms of what appears to be a dream, Song Yan then moves to daylight and the real world of Beijing and the apartment she lives in with her husband Bowen and his mother who has just moved in with them after her husband’s death. Song Yan must navigate in the space between Bowen, a man who appears closed-off emotionally and whose sole focus is his job, and her mother-in-law who resents living with her son and his wife, and soon reveals a secret about her family’s past that further strains Song Yan’s relationship with her husband.
When the first of many mysterious deliveries of mushrooms arrives at the apartment, Bowen’s mother recognizes them as ji zong mushrooms, grown in the Yunnan province where their family lived, and a tenuous bond forms between the women as they shop for and prepare meals for Bowen—soups and stews and noodles—that will highlight the mushrooms they receive.
Song Yan recognizes the name of the sender of the mushrooms, Bai Yu. Could this be Bai Yu, the piano prodigy her father wanted her to emulate before she gave up performing and switched to teaching piano? The same Bai Yu who disappeared without a trace years before, on the eve of his European tour?
When the mushroom deliveries cease, so too, it seems, does the connection between the two women in the home, but a letter from Bai Yu asking Song Yan to visit him sparks another kind of connection. This connection, between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the world of who we are and who we present to others, sees Song Yan beginning to learn more about herself and to understand, ultimately, what she needs.
This is a gorgeously haunting story that moves between the world of the fantastic and that of the everyday, often with both worlds overlapping in a shift that throws the reader ever so slightly off balance and feeling the need to recalculate. An Yu manages this with such grace and lyricism, it feels effortless. With Ghost Music, she digs deeply into the ways we can’t escape our past, and of how the spectre of our past haunts and shapes us, even as we try—especially as we try—to forget it.